Is innate human biology hostile to the welfare state?

Working away today, I caught an NPR story about social and behavioral scientists who are beginning to study altruisim and freeloading (which can be flipsides of each other). The results of the studies indicate that the healthiest groups (at least in economic models) are those that, not only do not reward freeloading, but actively punish it:

[S]cientists in England and Germany conducted an economic game. The goal was for each player to make as much money as possible.

But to be really successful, people had to cooperate by pooling their funds.

People in the game could join one of two teams. The first depended on voluntary cooperation. The second allowed members to sanction those who didn’t chip in.

Bernd Irlenbusch of the London School of Economics says students’ behavior changed dramatically over time.

“In the beginning participants were very reluctant to join the sanctioning institution,” she says.

But they soon figured out that people in the sanctioning group were making more money because more people contributed. There were fewer freeloaders.

After every round, Irlenbusch says, more students switched to the sanctioning group, even though members had to pay money if they wanted to sanction someone.

She says eventually even the freeloaders in the first group switched to the second group and changed their ways. And they began punishing anyone else who didn’t cooperate.

In other words, a traditional society, a capitalist society with traditional Judeo/Christian values, seems to be the most profitable for all. Just as significantly, we seem to be hardwired for that type of society:

Fowler says the explanation for altruistic behavior may be that our brains are wired to reward us for punishing freeloaders.

“That might be why we see individuals having an emotional and even sort of a brain response to punishing,” he says. “They actually feel pleasure when they punish people for violating a social norm.”

And Fowler says it takes just a few punishers to change the behavior of a lot of freeloaders.

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  • Marvin

    Should not be suprising to anyone. Hurry to the nearest decent bookstore and grab “How the Mind Works” and “The Blank Slate” by Steven Pinker. There is much more about this and similar issues there.

  • Zhombre

    However a similar experiment conducted in France resulted in the freeloaders engaging in violent demonstrations and the sanctioning group quickly capitulating to their demands.

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  • erp

    Socialists/Utopians deny the empirical evidence of animal behavior and insist on living in a dream world that cannot exist. We may also deny the existence of gravity, but things that go up will still come.

  • Bookworm

    Zhombre, your comment had me laughing out loud!

  • Ymarsakar

    Ya, well, sometimes cultural norms can overrule animal instinct as the case in France. Being called a “racist” is pretty much its own form of sanctioning.

    I think innate human biology had to survive, and your tribe/group couldn’t survive if there were a bunch of no contributing layabouts around. Eventually the group with more lazy freeloaders were exterminated by the group with a more efficient heirarchy and more contributors. I once recalled that Neanderthals took care of their crippled. While we may see it as “humane” of them, that probably contributed a net loss to their race and allowed the far more ruthless and efficient homo sapien to take over. Nature doesn’t care how humane you are, nature only cares if you are smarter, healthier, and more efficient at survival than the other guy. Nature has few if any rules in this game.

    Altruism I believe, comes from the guilt complex. I mean, back in our hunter-gatherer days, if you had more than the other family groups, that meant you would survive while they didn’t. Eating 1 more grub than you were allocated, meant one less grub a starving child or woman would get. Somebody hoards all the food, and he is going to be alone and dead soon enough. So it is quite natural for nature to instill an evolutionary based guilt complex into us. And altruism allows us to survive, as a group, because those who don’t feel guilty about having more are not motivated to work/hunt harder or etc in order to feed the others in his tribe. And that means tribes with warriors who were fed more food than the women and children, and didn’t feel any guilt if they didn’t bring in a good food hunt, would be exterminated by the more efficient and industrious other tribe.

    I guess after 500,000 something years, it starts getting hardcoded in the genetics. Humans are social animals, like wolves. Or at least most of us. (socio paths) I think there is a basic contentedness that comes from contributing your fair share and having the respect of your peers. Maybe the French might want to read some English philosophy on human nature, before they go kaput. If Chirac can stand to hear English, that is, without walking off…